Several riders will take the start in Santa Rosa with the clear objective of the overall win, however none will take the start as the rider to watch.
Likely GC contenders include defending champion Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) and Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), as well as Americans Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing and Tom Danielson and Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Barracuda.
As a three-time winner Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) must be part of any conversation regarding GC contenders, though he admitted himself Friday that he would not likely contend for the win.
In 2011, Horner and Leipheimer were RadioShack teammates, and came to the race as the top favorites; they later finished first and second overall.
In 2010, HTC-Columbia’s Michael Rogers became the only non-American to win the race, ahead of Dave Zabriskie and Leipheimer. From 2007-2009 Leipheimer, a Santa Rosa resident, made the race his own with three consecutive wins. American Floyd Landis won the inaugural event before going on to wear the maillot jaune in Paris at the 2006 Tour de France.
None of those California champions was a surprise winner, though Rogers’ was perhaps the most closely contested, winning by nine seconds after a combative final stage that included four trips up the steep Rock Store climb on Mulholland Highway north of Los Angeles.
And while this year’s winner won’t likely come out of left field, it’s far too early to predict which rider that might be.
Recovered from a near-fatal pulmonary embolism last July, Horner has had a strong 2012, finishing second overall, to Nibali, at Tirreno-Adriatico, and ninth overall at the Tour of the Basque Country. His spring classics campaign was marginal, however, and he did not finish his last race, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“This course is less ideal for my type of rider, but it’s the hardest course we’ve experienced here, and that might play in my favor,” Horner said at Friday’s pre-race press conference in Santa Rosa. “I’m going to miss the [Sierra Road summit], I prefer two hard summit finishes like we had last year, but they’re only giving me one this year, so I’ll take it.”
Nibali comes to California after an incredible spring that included a third-place finish at Milan-San Remo, the overall win at Tirreno, and a second-place finish at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. However, with his primary focus on the Tour de France, it’s questionable whether the Italian will dig deep to win in mid-May when his biggest objective is just eight weeks away.
“As an Italian, it’s difficult not to do the Giro d’Italia, but the Tour of California is an important race, and I hope to have a great result,” said Nibali, who last raced in California in 2009, the event’s final February running. “When I was here last I finished sixth overall, and I finished second on a stage to Fränk Schleck. I hope to improve on that.”
Leipheimer was lucky to have emerged with only a fractured fibula after a car struck him while training for the Basque Country tour on April 1. He only made the decision to take the start earlier this week, and said his race condition is an unknown.
“I have to be realistic. My leg was broken,” Leipheimer said. “It was not just a crack or a bruise, or a hematoma. The bone was apart, and it doesn’t take a doctor to see that. I’ve only been training for two weeks, and it hasn’t gone that great. As pro athletes, we’re always taught to reach for the stars, but I have to realistic and take the pressure off myself. I just have not been training that much. I don’t think you should count on me for the overall.”
Van Garderen looked strong at the Tour de Romandie in late April, but was forced to abandon on the penultimate stage when a wind-blown branch struck him in the face, requiring stitches to his eye and nose.
Yet when asked about his objectives for the race, van Garderen was hesitant to proclaim himself as a GC contender, saying only, “We have a strong, well-rounded team, with guys like Steve Morabito, George Hincapie and Brent Bookwalter. I think Greg Van Avermaet could give Tom Boonen some trouble in the sprints, and I will do my best to try and finish high in the overall.”
Danielson, who finished third in California last year before a top-10 ride at the Tour de France had a nasty crash in February at the Tour of Langkawi, suffering massive road rash that developed into an infection. His last race was the Tour of the Basque Country, where he finished 20th overall. Like van Garderen, Danielson did not come out and claim that he is in California to win.
“This race is a huge priority for Garmin-Barracuda,” Danielson said. “We have two American sponsors, and we’ve always been after the win. We have a fantastic team here. We’ve brought Andrew Talansky, who just finished second overall at the Tour de Romandie. He’s a strong time trial rider and a strong climber, and he trains regularly with Levi. He will be up there. We also have Alex Howes, who is just coming off riding well at the spring classics, and Tom Peterson — take note of that name, he’s one of the best climbers in the race.”
Talansky, a resident of nearby Napa, used Romandie as his international coming-out party, finishing second to Sky’s Bradley Wiggins. Garmin team manager Jonathan Vaughters believes Talansky could well win the overall; it’s a sentiment NBC Sports Network announcer Paul Sherwen shares, adding that he sees van Garderen and Talansky as the race favorites.
“Talansky just finished second at Romandie to a likely Tour de France winner,” Sherwen said. “That says a lot. The only question with Talansky is how well he can ride on a flatter time trial rather than a hilly time trial. And I think Tejay is fed up with winning best young rider competitions. He’s ready to put that behind him.”
If Talansky does pull off the overall win, race organizers AEG and Medalist Sports may well kick themselves for not inviting him to the pre-race press conference.
The last time that happened was in 2011, when Horner was not deemed enough of an overall favorite to be invited to the dais. On Friday Horner said he couldn’t envision anyone that was not sitting beside him at the press conference taking the overall win. The truth, however, is that this time around it’s anyone’s guess.